New numbers paint confused picture of American beliefs

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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Days after the 4th of July, a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) paints a disjointed picture of American beliefs regarding the value of public protests, “American Exceptionalism,” America’s moral legitimacy, what is “truly” American, whether America remains a “Christian Nation,” and whether Christians in America are being “persecuted.” 

“The public generally agrees that when Americans speak up and protest unfair treatment by the government, it makes the country better,” the PRRI report states — but significantly less so if the protestors are black. 

Sixty-three percent of the public agreed with the statement generally vs. fifty-four percent if the protestors were specified to be black. Among white respondents the divide was sharper, sixty-seven vs. forty-eight percent. 

The PRRI survey asks: Is America a divinely-inspired, “exceptional” country?

Most Americans say yes. 

“More than six in ten (62%) Americans believe that God has granted America a special role in human history, while roughly one-third (33%) disagree,” the report states. “Views have not shifted significantly in recent years.”

On the other hand, most Americans— fifty-three percent — think that America is failing to set “a good moral example for the rest of the world.”

“A notable gender gap exists on this issue,” the report states, “men are more likely than women to believe that the U.S. sets a good moral example—51% vs. 36%, respectively. Six in ten (60%) women say America is not setting a good example for the rest of the world.”

What counts as truly American?

“More than any other quality,” the report states, “Americans think that speaking English is an essential part of being American: roughly nine in ten (89%) Americans say that speaking English is important to being ‘truly’ American, including roughly two-thirds (66%) who say it is very important.”

This at a time in which the numbers of non-English speakers are increasing. In 2013, the U.S. Census reported that the number of non-English speakers tripled over the past 30 years. 

More recently, the Census confirmed that Hispanics are now the largest ethnic group in California, the largest state in the union measured by population. 

“A strong majority (69%) of Americans also say that believing in God is an important component of being a true American,” the report states, while, “Americans are more divided on the importance of being Christian: a majority (53%) of the public say that being a Christian is an important part of being truly American, while 43% say this is not too or not at all important.”

“Younger and older Americans disagree sharply over what is most important to being American. Roughly two-thirds (66%) of seniors (age 65 and older) say that being a Christian is an important part of being American, while only about one-third (35%) of young adults (age 18-29) agree.”

In May, the Pew Research Center released a report finding that the number of U.S. Christians shrunk nearly eight percentage points since 2007, and that “nones,” people who identify with no religion, now constitute the second-largest slice of the overall U.S. religious marketplace, leaving Catholics in third place.

According to the more recent PRRI report:

Most Americans do not believe America is a Christian nation today, even if many say it was in the past. About one-third (35%) of the public believe the U.S. was a Christian nation in the past and is still a Christian nation today; close to half (45%) say the U.S. was once a Christian nation but no longer remains so today; and 14% say the U.S. has never been a Christian nation. The number of Americans who believe the U.S. is a Christian nation has declined steadily over the past five years. In 2010, more than four in ten (42%) Americans said the U.S. has always been and is currently a Christian nation.

“Most Americans who believe the U.S. is no longer a Christian nation view this change negatively,” the report states. “Among Americans who believe the U.S. was once a Christian nation but is not anymore, roughly six in ten (61%) say that this is a bad thing, while about three in ten (29%) say that it is a good thing.”

To the question of Christian “persecution” in America, the report states that, “Americans are divided over whether Christians—who make up 72% of the adult population—are now facing as much discrimination as other groups. Nearly half (49%) of the public say that discrimination against Christians has become as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, while approximately as many (47%) disagree.”

Catholics are divided on the question. Fifty percent agree “that discrimination against Christians has become as problematic as other types of discrimination” vs. forty-seven percent who disagree. 

In a cultural sign of the times, shortly after last months Supreme Court ruling granting same sex couples the right to marry throughout the United States, the conservative commentator and one-time Catholic convert Rod Dreher wrote in Time:

“…we have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.”

“Orthodox Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us,” Dreher wrote. 

“We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution. And we are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children, to build resilient communities.”

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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